Monthly Archives: March 2013


Recently I was interviewed by someone writing for WOW – Women on Writing. This is one of the questions she asked me, and my answer:

Q: The poet Adrienne Rich stated “a female human being trying to fulfill traditional female functions in a traditional way is in direct conflict with the subversive functions of the imagination.” How is that true or not true in your life?

A: I love Adrienne Rich. She received an award at the National Book Awards dinner the year I was there. It took everything I had to not reach out and touch her as she walked by me within arm’s length. I wouldn’t dare argue with Rich, but I might qualify…

When I was growing up and dreaming of becoming a writer, I was delighted to discover the trope of the aberrant artist. She was eccentric and free of desire for material things. She was considered socially unconscionable until she became famous, at which time she was thought of as deliciously scandalous. She dressed mostly in black. If she had children… Well, I never knew anything about a writer’s children. Surely she would never have them. Or perhaps, if she did have them, they died of neglect, and the writer became even more hallowed for her sorrow.

Above all, a writer needed Experience. As a young person I didn’t know what that Experience might be, only that it had a capital E. And of course, a writer suffered, as all writers must, tortured by the bleak vision of life as it really is, of which the rest of us live comfortably ignorant. One day the writer committed suicide because, as we all know, for the truly gifted, life was not to be borne. It was her final heroic act, and we read her books even more voraciously to parse her genius and repent deeply of our own shallow happiness.

I did my best to misspend my youth in pursuit of an Experience. But then, without meaning to, I grew up. I joined the ignorant blissful as I filled my home with babies. Occasionally I wore pink. I doubted my longed-for writing career would survive growing up and having babies and wearing pink.

In fact, all those babies were at least indirectly responsible for my writing career. I added it up, and I breastfed for a total of eight years. You can’t do much with a baby attached to your breast, but you can read. I read the very best books, sometimes aloud to my baby, and this refined my palate for good literature. I read children’s books aloud to my children every day. I added up the years I read aloud to my children each night, and they total thirty-four years. Thirty-four years of reading aloud can train your ear for voice. Certainly it revealed to me the subversive nature and subtle artistry of literature for the young. Soon I will have had a child in my home for forty consecutive years, and in those years I have learned that the Experience a writer needs can happen just as easily in the wee hours with a sick child as it can in a walk-up in Greenwich Village.

Becoming a mother taught me that making art is not an act of running away from life, but an act of running to – mostly to wonder and to discovery. There’s nothing like a child to show you how to do that. You can discover this in other ways, of course – some of the best writers never had children. But this was my way. Have children connected me to the world in a way I hadn’t been before, and that connection is one of the most important reasons I write. Yes, sometimes in protest I put graffiti on the wall of the universe. But the universe lets me. The universe believes in freedom of graffiti. “Marvellous.” “Extraordinary.” These are the words more often said by the artist, not “How meaningless it all is.” Being a mom helped me learn that.



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Neruda’s Socks (Mark Karlins)


To the writer, or to this writer anyway, some things in this world seem to have an intrinsic vibrancy — say, a holy mountain in Tibet — while others — a pair of socks, perhaps — just don’t.


The mountain has drama, seems special, suggests an unfolding story.  The socks?  I don’t see much life in them.  When my feet are cold, I pull on a pair of socks, all the while thinking about other things.  Nothing in the socks themselves compels.

And that brings me to a question.  Where do we find compelling images for our writing?  The other day one of my students asked me this, and it seems worth pondering.  Are the compelling images all mountains, in a manner of speaking, or can socks too claim vibrancy?  Is there a place in our writing for the humble socks of this world?  If there is, what is the process whereby socks gain the breath and immediacy of a compelling image?

A number of years ago I visited a museum in England.  At this point, I don’t remember its actual name, but I think of it as The Museum of The Mundane. It was filled with commonplace objects — an old fashioned washing machine, a bucket for wringing out a mop, a Singer sewing machine (quite beautiful with its gold lettering).  Set off by themselves, museum-ified, the objects were meant to be looked at directly, closely, with museum-eyes.  It was, in truth, a wonderful experience to see and feel the commonplace brought to life, both through its placement in a museum (thus its specialness) and through our attention.

Leaving the museum, I looked at things in a somewhat different way, with more time, more openness, and a different focus.  As I saw what I might write about, ordinary objects acquired specialness. To be able to write compelling images begins, then, with acts of attention.

To be in the world.  To be in love with matter.  To be, then, a materialist is part of this, but not a materialist who cherishes the status of his house, which is an abstraction, but who notices the gradation of color in a wood floor, appreciates how a window slides within its frame.

How loosely or tightly are the socks knit?  How are they dyed?  How soft or harsh do they feel to the hand?  Do the toenails catch on the threads?

And then for the writing itself?  Julie Larios, in her last posting, says, “specificity and physicality are at the root of poetry.”  I think she would agree that that is also true for prose, although perhaps without quite the extended intensity.  But the concentration, the physicality, the specificity still need to be there. With accuracy, images can be so filled with life that they seem to lift off the page.

Returning to the mountain, it’s still there for the writer as a potent image of the sublime.  But a subtle and powerful alchemy can transform the socks.  When socks, well done, appear in our writing, they can take our ordinary experiences and find poignancy within them, elevate them.  And because most of us have experienced “sock lives” rather than “mountain lives,” these images are a particular kind of gift, one which imbues our lives with meaning.

Let’s go to a master on socks and other matters, Pablo Neruda:


Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder’s hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts,
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.

Pablo Neruda


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“What moss do you see….What field of corn?”

I’ve just come across a little advice about poetry (thanks to Maria Popova at Brain Pickings) which I agree with 100%, so I’ll share it with you. It comes from the writer James Dickey.


What is more fascinating than a rock, if you really feel it and look at it, or more interesting than a leaf?

Horses, I mean; butterflies, whales;

Mosses, and stars; and gravelly

Rivers, and fruit.

Oceans, I mean; black valleys; corn;

Brambles, and cliffs; rock, dirt, dust, ice …

Go back and read this list – it is quite a list, Mark Van Doren’s list! – item by item. Slowly. Let each of these things call up an image out of your own life.

Think and feel. What moss do you see? Which horse? What field of corn? What brambles are your brambles? Which river is most yours?


What Dickey and Mark van Doren help me remember here is that specificity and physicality are at the root of poetry.  I try to share that belief with my students at Vermont  College of Fine Arts. Abstraction lives somewhere else – philosophy, maybe, or mathematics.  What Dickey says also reminds me that some of the poems I love most –  whether narrative, lyrical, formal, informal, that which bears witness, that which reflects – are poems of experience. Dickey’s poetry  is not up there with my favorites  – I wrote a parody of it once, because at the time I thought it was so dense and decorated that it pressed me flat (yes, this is the same James Dickey who wrote Deliverance.) But I do love what he says in this particular passage. And maybe I just read the wrong collection of his work or was in a funny mood when I read it.  Maybe if I read the same work now, I would appreciate it more, who knows? Poems enter you or get turned away in strange ways at particular times – the right time, the wrong time – in your life. Here’s a poem I wrote (not for kids, for adults) about how poetry enters you. It was published a few years ago in the journal Mare Nostrum:


A sip of wine and a wafer to help this host enter you

on your tongue. It’s true, smart gods always find a way in,

since stupid gods are only human. Inside the walls, you ride

the back of a bird which came spinning in from the oculus,

you fall through to a new world beyond the old skin of sky.

Earlier you stood at the gates to the city: so many ghosts

opened their marble mouths and invited you in.

The Oculus of the Pantheon in Rome

The Oculus of the Pantheon in Rome

That poem came from experience – a summer in Rome, a morning in the Pantheon, watching the flight of a bird that had come in through the opening at the top of the dome.  (When I say “bird,” which bird do you see? How have you experienced “bird”?)

I’m just about to head off  (break of dawn this morning) for a few days with fellow writers and friends. We’re calling it a “retreat,” but for me it’s a gentle nudge to turn my back temporarily on solitude and  join the world again.  We’ll have fun –  if the predicted snow storm doesn’t leave us all stranded in airports around the country.  While together,  we’ll try to stay focused on writing.  I might go out and find a rock and a leaf to put  next to my notebook as I write. And I’ll scribble this question  at the top of the first page to get me started: “What field of corn?”

Read to write....

Ready to write….


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Nothing Much, Part 1

I seem to have nothing much to say.  (I’m calling this Part 1 in anticipation that this is likely to happen again.)  So I will share from my journal of collected quotations.  This post’s theme: 

Where do your ideas come from?

“Schenectady.” – Harlan Ellison

“The best work that I’ve ever done always has a feeling of having been excavated. I don’t feel like a novelist or a creative writer as much as I feel like an archaeologist who is digging things up and brushing them off and looking at the carvings on them.”  – Stephen King

“I think it must be that a writer touches some nerve, some chord that is close enough to being a universal experience that it jangles in all sorts of other peoples’ inner selves. Where the writer got it, of course, is not from knowing other people so well but from exploring himself… Writers really write for themselves, you know. Each book is a personal question answered or a problem solved.” – Eloise Jarvis McGraw

“A writer of fantasy, fairy tale or myth must inevitably discover that he is not writing out of his knowledge or experience, but out of something both deeper and wider. I think that fantasy must possess the author and simply use him.” – Madeleine L’Engle

“All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” – Federico Fellini

“There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.” –Leonard Cohen

“Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”

–William Butler Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”


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Literary Tension at the Level of Language

In an interview in the March/April 2013 issue of THE WRITER’S CHRONICLE, novelist and memoirist, Kim Barnes, said this about literary tension:

“Tension has to exist at the level of the language; it has to exist at the level of the story; it has to exist at the level of the intellect; it has to exist at the level of the heart; it has to exist at the level of what we would call the soul, that archetypal tension of inherent dichotomies, the moving forward in life between morality and aesthetics.
When we write, we’re asking our readers to engage in that tension because without tension there is no resolution. And it’s the resolution, at some level, that story relies most upon. Even if it’s at the level of aesthetics or if there’s no plot whatsoever or action, we still have to have the resolution of the tension.”

Tension, that balance of opposing forces stretched to breaking point, is essential to whatever we write. So often my own writing and that of my students lacks this sense of pressure. Sure, there may be interesting characters, potentially exciting or dire events and actions, or a lively voice, but so often the characters don’t come alive through their actions and the events don’t resonate because they fail to ignite response in either the characters or the readers. The voice may sound true to life, but the character just talks and talks and talks, telling the reader about the story and keeping her at arm’s length.

What I love about this quote from Kim Barnes is her assertion that not only does tension have to exist at the level of story, heart and soul and intellect, it has to exist (and she places this first) at the level of language. This is what I find missing so often in my own work and I have to spend a good deal of time in revision working out syntax, pacing, tone, rhythms, silences and white space, both in poetry and in prose. I have to reconstruct the voice I ‘hear’ for it to work on the page.

In cinema, characterization is developed through scenes, through dialogue, action, and reaction, but despite the actors’ talents and the screenwriters’ skills, the basic tools available to the filmmaker are the camera at its various angles and revision through editing by the directors that turn the final product into a film, into that specific form of art.

In literature, the same elements are shown through the only tools writers have, words on the page arranged according to patterns that make intellectual and emotional sense to the reader and create an effect that turns our writing, our poems, stories, memoirs, essays, etc., into art.

The building up of tension and it’s eventual release is what makes the story or poem work, whether the story is a loud, high-action drama or a poem that whispers to the reader the essence of a realized, but fleeting moment. What keeps the reader engaged and reading is the suspense that the reader feels as a result of this pressure that Barnes calls the “archetypal tension of inherent dichotomies,” the conflict among and between opposing forces, ideas, beliefs, desires, and even in the interplay of sounds and silence.


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Beguiling Grammar

By Tim Wynne-Jones

The inimitable Coe Booth sent around a website, recently, that featured a great new array of punctuation marks that might help a writer in the never ending business of trying to make text on the page get across what we really mean it to say. Will the “Sinceriod,” the “Sarcastices,” and the “Andorpersand” ever rise to the rank of question mark or exclamation mark in usage? Not likely. What about that expressive new kid on the block, the interrobang!?  Who knows? But who would have guessed that the emoticon would ever be taken seriously as Lynne Truss does in her wonderful book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation? See what you think of these pretenders to the punctuation game:

Anyway, this website got me thinking about punctuation and grammar in general. But hey, when I’m not thinking about words then I’m inevitably thinking about “…classes of words; their inflections, and their functions and relations in the sentence,” which is what Misters Webster and Merriam, tell us grammar is. And folded into that useful syntactical set of rules to follow or break (knowing that Strunk and White are watching and are probably not amused!), is the “…act or practice of inserting standardized marks or signs… to clarify the meaning and separate structural units,” which is the definition of punctuation.
To tell you the truth, I was never all that good at it – punctuating I mean – when I was at school. I had a rather imaginative attitude to usage, and a downright crush on the semi-colon for a number of years. But I’ve come to a place where these little squiggles and splotches are important friends and cohorts that I never take for granted. If you want to imagine life without punctuation, try reading this excerpt from a famous story, as it might have looked carved gloriously into a Roman wall:


 The romans didn’t know from spacing, let alone punctuation. Quotation marks? Forget it. They only way to nudge meaning out of the text above is to sound it out, taking breaths as need be. Because in their day, the written word was still intimately connected and dependent upon its oral roots.

The lower case didn’t make an appearance for a very long time, evolving from the writing of upper case letters by hand. The letters became rounded, until they assumed a quite new look, the so-called uncial hand. And it was longer still before a semi-uncial letterform came about, notably, the Carolingian minuscule developed in the ninth century, by the extraordinary scribe, Alcuin of York for his boss, Charlemagne.

Think of how much easier the quote above from Charlotte’s Web would be even if we simply had capitals to start the sentence. That would make it a bicameral script, by the way. This blog is actually tricameral; I wrote the title of Lynne Truss’ and E.B. White’s book in Italic, which is a common case on word processors, nowadays. When I started my career, typing on a typewriter, if we wanted to stress a word or acknowledge a book title we could only underline it. But anyway, Italic wasn’t really codified until the fifteenth century by Ludovico degli Arrighi.
Why am I indulging in this little history lesson? Well, it’s good somehow to know that this thing we do every day, expressing ourselves to the very best of our ability, is aided and abetted by a system of forms and symbols that we take for granted and yet have come into existence over literally thousands of years and were only brought about for the express purpose of making what we write as readable, and our intent as transparent, as possible: to indicate to our reader when to pause; or out and out stop; when something is urgent!; when something – out of nowhere – interrupts our train of thought; to indicate when a speaker, for one reason or another, just can’t go on…
It’s kind of magical, isn’t it? And having ability with language and all these squiggles and blotches, knowing how to put them together into a pleasing and clever and shapely thing, is powerful in its way — magically so. And you know what? Grammar, the word, comes from the same old Scots root word as Glamour, meaning the ability to beguile. Kind of makes it all seem a little bit enchanting when you think of it that way, doesn’t it?


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